Think of Asian enclaves in America, and the Chinatowns of New York and San Francisco might come to mind. But that would be doing Houston a disservice. It might surprise you to know that the biggest city in Texas is also one of America’s most ethnically diverse. And its Asiatown is duly expansive – stretching some 15km2 around Bellaire Boulevard in Southwest Houston, and home to hundreds of Asian supermarkets, restaurants, teahouses, temples, salons, travel agencies, auto repair shops and more.
This present-day neighbourhood took off in the early 2000s as Asian immigrants were slowly priced out of Downtown, where the original Chinatown had formed in the 70s. At the time, many of the businesses on Bellaire were budget-friendly mom-and-pop Chinese and Vietnamese markets and restaurants – like the cavernous Hong Kong City Mall and Kim Son buffet and dim sum parlor. But today, you’ll also find modern Asian restaurants along with those offering Taiwanese, Korean, Thai and Filipino fare.
Here we meet some of Asiatown’s newest entrepreneurs, as well as a few diehards – and get their top restaurant recommendations, of course.
Chef-owner, Mein, Tiger Den, Toukei Izakaya, Ohn Korean Eatery, Ishin Udon, BLKDog Coffee
Recent years have witnessed a boom of modern, second-generation restaurants in Asiatown. Leading the movement is Mike Tran, a Cambodian-Chinese immigrant and chef who owns several businesses including Mein, a modern Cantonese restaurant, and Tiger Den, a Japanese ramen shop. Having lived in the area for nearly three decades, Tran has witnessed its dynamic growth firsthand.
“As an immigrant, I found myself in Asiatown since an early age, looking for what I grew up with,” Tran says. “I’ve been a local for over 29 years and I’ve seen the area go from its humble beginnings to a more stylish, vibrant area, while still maintaining its honest, hard-working values.”
I’ve seen the area go from its humble beginnings to a more stylish, vibrant area, while still maintaining its honest, hard-working values
Tran’s flagship restaurant, Mein, is a critical darling among Houston foodies. It’s known for its inventive take on Cantonese food – inspired by Tran’s own diverse heritage – and decor that pays homage to Shanghai’s golden age. Located on Corporate Drive, the restaurant shares a strip mall with several of the other businesses within Tran’s pan-Asian empire including Ohn Korean Eatery; a Korean soju bar and gastropub; Toukei, a modern izakaya; Ishin, a udon bar; and BLKDog Coffee, a cute café.
“There are some great grocery stores in the area,” Tran says, nodding to the likes of Viet Hoa International Foods, Welcome Food Center, and H Mart. “It’s hard for me to pick a favourite because they all excel at different things, whether it’s vegetables, hard-to-find herbs and spices or specialty cuts of meat and seafood.”
Grace and Leo Xia
Co-owners, Hongdae 33 and Duck ‘N Bao
For many entrepreneurs, setting up shop in Asiatown was a way to connect to their roots. Grace Xia, Beijing-born owner of the new Korean BBQ hotspot Hongdae 33 and Peking duck specialist Duck ‘N Bao, shares that she and her husband and business partner Leo Xia, who is from Chengdu, frequently visited the area for a taste of home.
“Whenever we miss our hometown, we’d head to Asiatown to find these familiar flavours that help heal our homesickness,” Xia explains. “Asiatown includes a mall, supermarkets, shopping centers, restaurants, milk tea shops and bakeries, so people can come to one center to get everything they want at the same time.”
She adds that the couple’s go-to restaurant is Ma Lu Bian in Diho Square, which offers bian, the beloved skewer-style hot pot dish: “Bian is a trendy skewer hot pot restaurant that has recently attained cult-level popularity. It is from my husband’s hometown of Chengdu, and he has had it since he was a little kid.”
Owner, Cajun Kitchen
Beyond traditional foods, Houston’s Asiatown is known as the birthplace of the now world-renowned Viet-Cajun cuisine – a modern hybrid style created by Vietnamese refugees in the Gulf Coast. This fusion cooking style applies the ethos of Southeast Asian seafood boils to local crawfish. Though crawfish comes from Louisiana, it was in Houston that it extended its reach into the mainstream.
John Nguyen, owner of the beloved Cajun Kitchen on Wilcrest, has been one of the driving forces behind the booming popularity of the cuisine. Originally from Norway, Nguyen grew up eating Viet-Cajun crawfish at home due to the fact that many of his mother’s relatives lived in Louisiana. In 2013, seeking a break from his corporate job, he took over Cajun Kitchen from its original owners, who first opened the restaurant in 2005.
“The Viet-Cajun trend has just exploded on the national food scene. From being concentrated in Houston’s Asiatown, it has now spread all over Houston, Texas and many other cities and states that are not even that close to Louisiana,” Nguyen notes. “It is just amazing how this one seafood dish has been so widely embraced everywhere. Heck, even McCormicks has created their own Viet-Cajun spice blend for the masses.”
Beyond Viet-Cajun, Nguyen says he frequents many other businesses in the area for traditional Asian food. “If I’m craving something fast, like a banh mi, my go-to spots are Thim Hing, Don’s Cafe or Alpha Bakery,” he says. “If you’re looking for Vietnamese snacks and desserts like sticky rice, che or less known things like banh beo, banh duc, and banh gio, check out Duc Phuong. It’s a super popular place that makes everything fresh daily and in limited amounts.”
Owner, Thai Spice Express and Zapvor by Thai Spice
Originally from Thailand, Orasinee Ratanaporn became one of the pioneers of the Asiatown neighbourhood when she opened back in 1983 (known as Thai Spice Express since 1996). Today, she primarily oversees her latest restaurant, Zapvor by Thai Spice, in the nearby suburb Sugar Land, but she considers herself a tried-and-true Asiatown local.
“I’m still an Asiatown person – I’m here every day to eat, and to go to my bank,” she says. “I love that I can find every kind of Asian food here, and they’re opening many more restaurants. It’s still very exciting every time I walk around and find something new.”
Ratanaporn’s list of favourite restaurants is long, but her standouts include Banana Leaf for Malaysian food, Spicy Hunan for Chinese food and her all-time favourite Confucius Seafood Restaurant. “If you first order two entrees, you can order a lobster special for something like $40,” she advises. “It’s a great value and you can have the lobsters cooked to your liking.” She also shouts out to the diverse eats at Dun Huang Plaza, a sprawling bi-level strip mall.
As for plans to return to Asiatown, Ratanaporn says she has some ideas for the near future. “Depending on the lease, I’m thinking of going back to Thai Spice Express this year – we still have our diehard customers, but we are hoping to modernise since the neighbourhood is attracting so many new, young people who are interested in Asian food.”
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